Around 4.1 million workers, mostly women, work in the Bangladesh apparel industry. They churn out a wide array of garment items for global brands and retailers. However, the Coronavirus pandemic, have had a devastating impact on the industry as well as the garment workers’ whose livelihoods depend on this sector entirely.
According to reports, as the virus spread, many top retail brands cancelled orders that were already in production. Many even asked for discounts or sought extended payment terms, to stretch the already beleaguered garment makers, to the limits. Consequent to these developments, not only scores of garment makers had to shut shop and bow out of business for good even thousands of workers, who were earlier employed gainfully in the realm of garment manufacturing, lost their jobs. Though some may question as to the exact number of garment workers who might have lost their jobs, various reports and surveys in the last few months, if at all, suggest that the number of garment workers who lost their jobs on account of the Coronavirus pandemic is quite significant. On one hand,many workers lost their jobs due to the two-month nationwide shutdown imposed between 26 March and 30 May 2020, while on the other, scores of others were laid-off for lack of work orders from the international retailers and brands.
As per reports, many brands and retailers cancelled work orders citing poor sales as countries in the West continued to grapple to bring the pandemic under control and authorities ordered restrictions and lockdowns to bring the situation under control. Under the given circumstances, one would assume that brands and retailers too suffered significant damage, on account of the pandemic,or did they actually?
Now, if some reports are to be believed, notwithstanding the hardships faced by the apparel workers and the manufacturers, many retailers seem to have not only managed to dodge the devastating impacts of pandemic,but rather make profits as well.
Sixteen major global fashion brands, including the likes of H&M, Nike and Levi’s, reportedly recorded profits of at least US$10 billion in July-December of 2020 alone, while on the other hand,millions of apparel workers of their supply chain were denied full wages for the work already completed due to order cancellations and non-payment by the brands during the pandemic, according to a global report.
In stark contrast to the destitution faced by garment workers in their supply chains, most major fashion brands are once again turning profits (in some cases unprecedented profits) having already recovered from the initial disruption caused by the pandemic, underlined a study — the report titled Wage Theft and Pandemic Profits: The Right to a Living Wage For Garment Workers’ demonstrates how the business model of fashion brands and the structure of global garment supply chains create and sustain poverty wages for garment workers — conducted by UK-based rights advocate Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
“Wage theft is endemic in the garment industry: factories scaling back the workforce or closing down and laying off staff without payment of wages and severance is rife. But wage theft has escalated during the pandemic with grave consequences,” the report underlined even as the study featured eight case studies from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Ethiopia, involving allegations of unpaid wages and benefits linked to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting over 9,800 garment workers.
These workers were reportedly producing for 16 international brands: Carter’s Inc, Hanesbrands, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co, LIDL, L Brands, Matalan, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Next, New Look, Nike, PVH, River Island, Sainsbury’s, S.Oliver and The Children’s Place.
As stores closed around the world in response to COVID-19 lockdowns in early 2020, fashion brands and retailers sought to minimise their losses, shifting the financial burden of the disruption to the bottom of their supply chain, said the report adding that the cancelled orders, delayed payments and demands for huge ‘discounts’ from suppliers — the practice of paying only a fraction of the agreed amount for clothes ordered — had a catastrophic impact on workers even as it went on to underline that major fashion brands refused to pay overseas suppliers for over US$16 billion of goods during the pandemic between April and June 2020.
In many cases workers, the vast majority women, had been owed wages for several months and are left struggling to support themselves and their families, the report maintained while claiming that tens of thousands of garment workers had also lost their jobs during the pandemic and one in four had not received legally mandated severance pay.
“These workers face hunger and destitution: more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of garment workers or a member of their household have gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic as suppliers cut wages and closed factories,”according to the report which further added that many garment producing countries are using the pandemic as justification for suppressing wages.
In Bangladesh, garment manufacturers are urging the Government to suspend a planned 5 per cent rise (from approximately US$94 to US$99 per month) in the minimum wage due to the COVID-19 crisis while in Cambodia the minimum wage for garment workers was increased by only US$2 a month as of January 2021, far short of unions’ recommendation of US$12,’ said the report even as it, citing an example, maintained that 600 workers were owed wages, benefits, bonuses and severance pay from Dragon Sweater factory in Bangladesh after their jobs were terminated in March 2020 after the factory suspended operations.
It also said that over 1,100 garment workers continued to demand unpaid wages and benefits from A-One BD Ltd garment factory in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone after it closed operations in March 2020, reportedly as a result of foreign buyer cancelling orders.
Workers have staged a series of protests to demand the reopening of the factory, and the payment of all arrears, since January 2020 and in early December 2020, protestors were left injured after police violently attacked them with batons, tear gas and water cannons while they were asleep, the report said even as according to the BHRRC report, approximately 3,000-4,000 workers in Stylecraft Ltd. factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh were affected due to the cancelation of orders and non-payment by the buyers.
According to reports, workers of the factory staged demonstration in November 2020 demanding 35 per cent of their wages and arrears for September and October, full pay for November, overtime pay and other owed allowances even if Thulsi Narayanasamy, Senior Labour Rights lead at the BHRRC, said that the research exposed an unfair industry rigged to favour brands at the expense of women workers who make clothes.
“A year into the pandemic, with growing profits, and after witnessing the utter destitution of workers, brands don’t have an excuse for failing to protect the basic rights of garment workers. It’s not optional to ensure legal wages and benefits are paid in your supply chain,” maintained Thulsi Narayanasamy, who went on to add that the business model of fashion brands and the structure of global garment supply chains was built on an extreme inequality of power that creates and sustains poverty wages for garment workers.
However, even if the brands on one hand have washed their hands off from the responsibility of the workers as the report shows, some among the stakeholders did step in, in an effort to help the workers, not only of the apparel sector but also of the other export-oriented industries as well, and a case in point is the European Union (EU).
The EU, which is a major apparel export destination for the Bangladesh garment industry, given the circumstances, came up with a cash support programme, which came as a blessing for the retrenched workers.
After a long wait, the cash support programme, whose start has been backdated to September, 2020, was inaugurated by the State Minister for Labour and Employment, Monnujan Sufian earlier who inaugurated the initiative to provide cash assistance to socially disadvantaged and vulnerable workers who lost their jobs, on 22 December 2020.
She said the Government took the initiative to launch the social security programme as part of a concerted effort by the Honourable Prime Minister to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to destitute workers in the Readymade Garments (RMG), Leather Goods and Footwear Industries in response to the global epidemic. She also went on to say that the total number of beneficiaries will increase in time.
As per the initiative, the workers who lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus fallout across three sectors, namely garments, leather and footwear, would finally receive Taka 3,000 per month as financial assistance.
Considering the workers’ livelihoods, the EU, the largest export destination for Bangladeshi goods, announced a €113 million grant to pay three months of wages to one million workers laid off in export-oriented industries amid the pandemic.
Given the helping hand as extended by the European Union to the apparel workers in this crisis period, others would perhaps do well to come forward and live up to their responsibilities, and if possible, chip in a little bit extra, for the welfare of the apparel workers, as one would expect.